By JAMIE BAKER
Shannon Stewart is getting one last shot at a national championship.
The Elmwood graduate will line up at tight end for the Mount Union football team one last time Friday night when the Purple Raiders take on St. Thomas (Minn.) in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl Friday at 7 p.m. in Salem, Va.
Stewart, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior, will try and finally get his championship ring after losing in the Stagg Bowl each of the final three seasons.
“Well, this is the fourth time for my class and it’s kind of like we’re almost used to playing for a championship. The problem is, we’ve never won. We have a sense of urgency now, we want to finish the deal on Friday,” Stewart said.
“It’s never said like that by the coaching staff, but as players, we come to Mount Union for a reason besides school. It’s to win a national championship in football and that’s the standard we try and live by. Anything less than that is a failure.”
Winning national championships IS the standard for the small private United Methodist Church affiliated school located in Alliance. Under coach veteran coach Larry Kehres, Mount Union has won 23 Ohio Athletic Conference championships, including the last 21 in a row, along with 10 of the last 18 NCAA Division III National Championships.
Stewart has played a key role in the Purple Raiders run to the Stagg Bowl this season. He’s played in a dozen games catching 27 passes for 371 yards a four touchdowns as Mount Union heads into the game with a perfect 14-0 record.
Stewart credits Kehres, who is 331-24-3 in 27 seasons as head coach, with not only the team’s but his own personal success on the gridiron.
“Coach Kehres is an unbelievable guy he definitely recognizes hard work and will give players the opportunity to shine when the time comes. He’s one of the smartest guys I know. He’s very respectful and in return he gets respect too,” Stewart said.
“From top to bottom, he knows all the details and really knows how to run a program that’s successful year in and year out.
He turns players who he thinks might have a little bit of football talent into a championship caliber team. He works with what he got and makes them winners. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Stewart has followed the footsteps of another Elmwood grad at Mount Union.
Chad Reynolds played tight end for the Purple Raiders from 2005-08. Reynolds recovered a last-minute onside kick in 2008 to preserve Mount Union’s 31-26 Stagg Bowl win over Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“Being from Elmwood, I had a great guy to look up to in Chad Reynolds. Growing up when I was in middle school, I always looked up to him and when I was in high school he played at Mount Union,” Stewart said.
“I kind of literally followed in his footsteps. He was a receiver when he got here and once he got into the system, they turned him into a tight end. Once I got here, they did the same thing to me.
“During Chad’s career they won three national championships and I don’t have any yet. This is my last shot and all of the seniors’ last shot and we’re going for it,” he added.
Stewart and a lot of his teammates probably could have played at the Division II level or higher in college. But when they enroll at Mount Union, they do so because they know the odds are good that their season will end with a shot at an NCAA Division III championship in the Stagg Bowl.
“I know the decision for me and a lot of other guys is: Do you want to go D2 and get a scholarship and maybe win a couple of games or a conference here and there or do you want to go to Mount Union and play for a national championship?” Stewart said.
“In high school we had some decent teams and won a couple of league titles but I wanted to be on that level where you can win a national championship.”
He and his teammates will get their chance Friday night.